Posted by Rojas @ 10:10 pm on November 6th 2008

New Conservative principle one: balance the budget first, THEN cut taxes

Many claims have been made about the repudiation of conservatism by the incumbent administration, and the actions which have to be taken to reclaim the mantle of the movement. I am going to argue here that the single greatest transgression of the Bush administration has been fiscal profligacy. In fact, I will go further: I would contend that the New Conservative movement is going to have to go further to the right on this issue than Reagan did. The central fiscal tenet of New Conservatism has to be balanced budgets, with taxes at best a secondary concern. In other words, while we will necessarily seek to cut spending first, a New Conservative should prefer the prospect of a tax hike to the prospect of an unbalanced budget, and should vote accordingly.

Conservatives are wary of forced change. We recognize that institutions have intrinsic value independent of their designed purposes, that systemic equilibrium is easily damaged, and that unintended consequences are inevitable, particularly when our instrument is one as cumbersome as government. It seems to me that this principle necessarily means that a conservative must be extremely wary of debt. Debt places the debtor’s destiny outside of his or her own hands; it puts the debtor in a position where change can be imposed on him or her from the outside. Opposition to forcible change therefore requires the elimination of as much debt as is practically possible without imposing dramatic change in the process.

Self-described American conservatives to this point have displayed no meaningful aversion to debt. The last eight years in particular have been marked by massive spending increases at the behest of the allegedly conservative party. This is a legacy that has to be decisively repudiated, and that repudiation has to include repudiation of the specific programs involved, ranging from No Child Left Behind to Medicare Part B to the Iraq War. Any of these might be justifiable in a vacuum. In a deficit environment, however, each of these expenditures represents the creation of a massive unintended consequence–the creation of debt that will constrain future spending options that might be equally justifiable in conservative terms. One of the FIRST things conservatives ought to be conserving is their own future options. To squander those options for the sake of momentary gain, however compelling, is the antithesis of conservatism.

This does not represent a painful choice for most conservatives, as most of Bush’s programs (Iraq perhaps excepted) were of limited appeal to his base. The really hard decisions come where the conflict between debt and taxation is concerned.

It is, very clearly, the status quo position of the Republican Party that massive debt is preferable to any tax increase. Taxes are understandably undesirable to small-government conservatives, as they represent an incursion by the state upon the economic liberty of the citizenry. They are anti-productive in their effects and ugly in their political consequences. Conservatives ought to remain opposed to taxation as a general principle. However, it is time for New Conservatives to accept the idea that, on the whole, taxation is a lesser evil than debt. This is true for four reasons.

First: debt poses a greater threat to liberty, and a greater institutional threat, than does taxation. Taxes undermine institutions at the fringes and impinge upon their effective operation. Debt, by contrast, calls into question the future existence of these same institutions, as it imposes a certainty of future change and reprioritization. Taxes make us momentary and occasional slaves of the government; debt makes each of us the future slave of our present self.

Secondly: debt IS taxation, and taxation of a worse sort than any we can impose upon ourselves directly. That debts will need to be paid, with interest, at some future point is axiomatic. This means that any debt incurred implies a future tax. The conservative, however, has control over the precise mechanics of any tax he or she may choose to impose at the present time; while taxation is always undesirable, some taxes are more undesirable and destructive than others. The future taxes represented by debt will be imposed by unknown individuals; the conservative will have no influence over that process, and cannot control the extent to which the taxes will be destructive of institutional order. Debt is, therefore, the form of taxation which a conservative should fear most.

Third: taxation may be discontinued; debt is self-perpetuating. Taxes have direct economic costs in terms of growth, but these may be moderated by the mechanics of the tax. Debt service payments impose the same costs, but unavoidably and irreperably. Taxes do not feed themselves and grow of their own accord; debt does.

Fourth: debt, far more than taxes, represents a negation of the civic virtue which conservatives prize. Conservatives are wary of the influences of government upon the citizenry, and seek to avoid affirming bad practices through replicating them in government. Yet there are few instances of taxation leading to citizens seeking to collect payments from their neighbors on pain of death or imprisonment. The culture of debt, by contrast, is pervasive and self-reinforcing; the massive federal deficit finds its mirror in the massive private debt held by Americans. A repudiation of taxation will not reduce crime, but a reduction of federal debt might very well foster an improvement in the private savings rate.

The conclusion, then, is straightforward. The New Conservative is a deficit hawk, who fully recognizes the destablizing and anti-conservative effects of governmental debt. The New Conservative seeks to remedy this problem through every means at his or her disposal–spending cuts first, certainly; but tax increases when necessary. And only in the most extreme and unusual instances does the New Conservative prefer debt to a tax hike. To cut taxes IN ANY WAY while the government operates at a deficit is the antithesis of New Conservatism.

I contend that this is not just a core principle for New Conservatives, but a political winner. We have seen the consequences of the Republican Party attempting to match the Democrats on spending–see 1992 or 2008. We simply cannot beat them at their own game; they will always be a more credible Santa Claus than we will. By contrast, we have on several occasions seen conservative “grinches” affirmed by the voters for their fiscal restraint–look to 1984 and 1994.

The American people already have a party to represent the grasshopper. The New Conservatives need to be the ant. It’s high time we reclaimed our status as the adults in the room.


  1. If the Republican party is going to be a popular party without relying too heavily on the social issues – which are divisive – they need to adopt a platform that is more acceptable to working class voters.

    This includes a more nationalistic economic policy, within reason. If we can spend 700 billion to bail out wall street we can spend some on helping Detroit. The money will go a lot farther.

    This still differs from the Democrats in that we are not supporting welfare and other handout programs. That is where we draw the line. It is not santa claus per se.

    We also need to control immigration as it lowers the wages of the working class, creates a huge burden on the social services and gives the left a huge block of anti-freedom voters. It also creates a permanent undereducated underclass that makes our population less competitive.

    Finally, we need to get back to a low-interventionist foreign policy, which will save money and let us focus on reducing spending and improving our international relations. It will also save lives.

    Domestic spending on infrastructure and research is ok and should be supported within reason, as it really is only a small part of the budget.

    I also think the Republicans should be take a strong stance on everyday civil liberties, including anti-torture, due process, habeus corpus, posse comitatus, free speech, gun-rights and wire tapping only within FISA, just to name some examples.

    Abortion and gay rights are some of the tough nuts. For me, neither is a high priority, but I am sympathetic to both side. But for a lot of people they are a big deal… I can only argue for the state by state solution for both.

    Other big issues include health care and social security…

    Comment by daveg — 11/6/2008 @ 10:54 pm

  2. I like it Rojas, I really do. Now can we sell it to GOP and then to the public at large?

    Comment by Mortexai — 11/7/2008 @ 12:23 am

  3. I’m trying. My comments at the end are an attempt to demonstrate that the policy is saleable. There IS a place on the political landscape for people who can be depended on to be responsible with money. I’d like for us to be those people again.

    Your own ideas on core principle would be welcome, Mort.

    I think I’m going to put up another post discussing some of daveg’s immigration ideas, and trying to put them in a big-tent framework that conservatives of different stripes can appreciate.

    Comment by Rojas — 11/7/2008 @ 12:30 am

  4. I dunno, you gonna trust ‘Mort the ditch digger’ with such an awesome task? I’ll give it some thought, no promises I’ll have much to add.

    Comment by Mortexai — 11/7/2008 @ 12:51 am

  5. It’s not like anybody else on this blog is “qualified”.

    We’re a bunch of vaguely conservative dingbats who nobody else listens to. We can still use this forum to generate our own voice in the reform conversation, however small.

    Our leadership has let us down badly. Fortunately, as conservatives, we don’t wait for a glorious leader to show us the way; we do it ourselves. So let the liberals have their messiah. We’ll find our own path back to power.

    Comment by Rojas — 11/7/2008 @ 1:05 am

  6. My first response to this idea is that it doesn’t strike me as something exclusive to “conservatism”. I’m more to the left than you but I firmly firmly firmly believe that we need responsible fiscal policy. I’m less concerned about taxes than sustainability, ie debt. I think PAYGO systems (let me say that I’m not well read on this system though) strike me as good.

    We need non-debt federal policies as well as non-debt sensibilities among the general population.

    Comment by Jerrod — 11/7/2008 @ 11:22 am

  7. Well, certainly, part of our task is to choose a new “conservative” agenda that has appeal outside of self-defined conservatives. It sounds to me like I may have succeeded.

    Comment by Rojas — 11/7/2008 @ 12:45 pm

  8. I think I advocated for this a while back. I might have had ‘balance budget by cutting spending, then cut taxes by more spending cuts’, though. It’s true, though, that the budget has to be balanced. Additionally, people will realise what government spending actually costs if they see it coming from their paycheques in the now. Borrowing is OK, but it should be a wash over the economic cycle (as Gordon Brown always advocated, although failed to achieve).

    Comment by Adam — 11/7/2008 @ 2:46 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.